• Readings for today's Mass

Discovering an Australian Spirituality

Summary of main ideas

A "spirituality" is an approach to life that is in touch with the yearnings, hopes and commitments that are the measure of our human existence. As Australians, we share a distinctive culture, derived in part from the old world, and shaped as well by the experience of sharing life in this unique continent. Australian spirituality can be defined as the "best self" of our distinctive culture.

Life in this continent has not been easy – with its unexpected "dead heart", and its extremes of drought and flood, always at the mercy of the fluctuations of world markets. But this experience has made the "battler" spirit an important component of our best self – making Australians remarkable for their resourcefulness and inventiveness, and for the courage they have shown on the battle field. Adversity has given our best self the wisdom we needed to cope with the set-backs of life. Even though, in the 19th century, Australia was – surprisingly! – one of the most urbanized countries in the world, the "battler" spirit has been associated especially with life in "the bush". Australians have a extraordinary affinity with "the bush" and all that it symbolizes – perhaps it has been seen as what is most distinctively ours as we owned an approach to life very different from much that was taken for granted in the old world. Reflecting this spirit, our Australian humour gives expression to our "best self" – dry, not letting impossible situations get us down, and levelling in a good-natured way.

Our convict origins have not only kept us humble, but they have had a lasting effect on our "best self" - wanting a "fair go" for all. We must acknowledge, however, that this unusual origin, and the influx of diggers during the early gold rushes (so that for a long period males far outnumbered females in the population) has given rise to an exclusive male culture ("mateship"). We are coming to recognize that this distinctively Australian culture has an unfortunate shadow side. On the other hand, the living of the Australian egalitarian spirit had, by the beginning of the 20th century, made our country a "social laboratory", pioneering measures of social justice that were admired by the social reformers of Europe.

A people's culture has been described as "a struggle to be human and to remain human" (Bernard Smith). The relationship of white Australians to indigenous Australians has severely tested our "best self" in a way we are still coming to terms with. In the end, it is in our relationship with this strange continent that the cultures of both Aboriginal Australians and other Australians have developed their distinctive characteristics. For both groups this continent has become a beloved symbol of what we hold in common.

The Christian faith has not had an easy relationship with the Australian outlook. In the beginning, the convicts looked upon the official chaplains as tools of a hateful establishment. Later, the Christian denominations - carrying on their sectarian squabbles - seemed to be out of step with an outlook that wanted to leave the problems of the old world behind. But the wisdom brought by our "battler" spirit, and our commitment to a "fair go" for all, are not far from the message of the Christian gospel – as some of the visionaries who have attempted to point the way forward for us have recognized.